Don’t Panic! How the economy should impact your college search

As markets continue their roller coaster ride while the candidates sling invective at one another’s financial bailout plans, I hear daily from people reacting to the financial situation as it relates to colleges.  On the college side, college administrators are concerned many of you will stay home, or at least closer to home than you might otherwise have gone.  For students, or more specifically, parents, there is a growing trend to rule out some colleges now on the basis of finances.

A study out today from the National Association of Independent Colleges, however, offers a more realistic picture.  That association is made up of the high cost private institutions.  A Dean of Admissions for a major public institution, such as myself, who was feeling less than charitable might mention that these are the schools most likely to have graduates with HUGE DEBT LOADS, but I wouldn’t stoop to that level (cue campaign music).  The study found that, while many schools had lost some of their student loan lenders, only 8.5% had trouble replacing those lenders.  They also reported a handful of students at most institutions facing financial difficulty, but reported that most found alternative payment plans or other funding sources to continue meeting their (incredibly inflated) tuition costs.

So how does all this impact YOU?  There are two big aspects to how the “crisis” can impact your ability to pay.  First, most of us with savings have seen those funds take a huge loss, so have less cash on hand to pay college bills.  Second, loans to make up that gap might be harder to get, and/or more expensive to pay off.

While I appreciate that families need to assess their financial situations in making their college choices, it seems a bit bizarre to me for students to be making up their minds already that some schools are out of reach.  We really don’t know what will be going on by the time those of you applying for college this year get your financial aid packages (for most of you that won’t be until March or April 2009), let alone when you need to make your commitment to colleges (May 1, 2009) or when you bills will start to come to (for most in early September 2009).   It’s entirely possible that the financial situation, particularly the availability of loans and their rates, will be very different by those dates.

So my advice:  don’t rule out any schools at this point based on their cost (even if those costs are ridiculously high from some of those other schools), especially before you see what kind of aid they might supply.  At the same time, it’s certainly worth making sure your mix of schools has some reasonably priced alternatives that you can be excited about.  Did I mention that, even for out of state students, Mason’s tuition is about HALF of the other D.C. institutions?  I did?  Oh good.  Be seeing you.


At long last, I’ve become a wholly owned subsidiary.

No, you’re not having déjà vu – it’s very possible that what you’re reading here you are also reading on  Here’s the scoop: Even as I rant about the evils of marketing in admissions and all the ways that colleges seek to manipulate you, I’ve cut a deal with the powers that be at  Why?  They used exactly the right approach – they appealed to my ego.


It seems that Monster, the mother of all job search engines on the web, spent quite a bit of time acquiring any and all web sites that might possibly contribute to or compete with their business model.  Along the way, they grabbed up a couple of pretty amazing sites, including Fastweb, the largest (and I think best) scholarship search engine on the web, and Finaid, arguably the best source for financial aid data.  Now their planning to dominate the entire college search market, with huge online college fairs, an amazing array of services, and, to top it all off…me.


The big discussion was about how they could distinguish themselves from all the clutter in the field, and I may have mentioned something about being tired of reading a handful of admissions officers’ blogs whining about how many files they have to read while they are doing their “holistic” review (holistic, if I’m not mistaken, is translated from the Latin meaning, “to try to get a better rank in US News”).  Its also possible I went on something of a rant about the sites that are even worse where a bunch of parents give each other advice based on irrefutable sources of data like, “I heard from my neighbors brother-in-law’s uncle that once spent three days visiting a campus and walked near an admissions office where he was pretty sure he heard that NOTHING is as important as grading scales, so it MUST be true.”


After they waited calmly for my blood pressure medication to kick in they said something about me writing for the site.  What I heard was, “Dean Flagel, you are a font of true and honest insight.  You bring light to the darkness.  You are Zac Efron to our Vanessa Hudgens – bring your blog to our site and share your wisdom with all the world!”  On reflection, it’s possible they may have said, “All right already, stop whining.  We’ll let you post some stuff on the new site.  Please let go of our leg.” Either way, it all worked out for the best. 


For the time being I’ll have some stuff in both places as they get their online virtual act together and get my posts caught up.  Eventually everything will just be posted on, and they’ll have AMAZING ADDITIONAL FEATURES that will make it the BEST SITE EVER.  Or so I’m told.


Also, they promised I can still shamelessly plug Mason.  Lets test that:  Mason rules!  Saturday night I was at the Patriot Center at Mason watching Lewis Black, perhaps the funniest guy on the planet, ranting at the Patriot Center.  It’s possible he may be angrier at the universe than I could ever be, but I must say that I share nearly all of his fine opinions.  More importantly, a bunch of our students got to go backstage and hang out.  I’ll post some pictures of tomorrow.  In the meantime, be seeing you.

Better recommendations for college admissions

It’s important to remember, whether I’m writing about essays, recommendations, or other non-academic pieces of the application, that these are FAR less important than your academic records.  It seems worth repeating that test scores are likewise far less important than academic records– but that essays and recommendations are given even less weight.


Since recommendations are one of the only things you can control while applying, even though they aren’t as important as you might think, there are a few things to bear in mind.


I’ve found that most recommendations follow one of two patterns. Once in a while the recommendation adds important new information, particularly when it explains a brief downturn in academic performance.  It is always helpful to hear from a third party, particularly a teacher, that some period of poor performance can be attributed to some clear cause (besides lack of talent or hard work), especially if that cause has now been resolved.


 In most cases, however, an applicant gives the writer a resume, and the recommendation ends up being a list of everything the student accomplished, which is a repeat of the material that the applicant already submitted.  These are tedious, and add very little to the application.  Instead I encourage applicants to have recommenders write about what they know best.  Clearly we want your teachers to talk about your academic talent.  You might also have a coach talk about your leadership skill, a boss talk about your work ethic, or a clergy person talk about your dedication.  It’s important to know that these don’t have to long, in fact shorter recommendations on the information that a recommender knows best will often have a much larger impact than a lengthy (repetitious, redundant, boorrringg!) recitation of everything you’ve ever done.


Next up – how many recommendations should you submit?

What is the best recommendation for college admission

I promised I’d get around to writing about recommendations, and at long last I have.  Colleges look at recommendations, first and foremost, to get additional information about what kind of student you have been and will be.  It shouldn’t be much of a surprise, then, that the most important recommendations are usually from teachers.

There are, of course, exceptions.  If your dad’s best friend has his name on a building, a reference letter from that person won’t hurt, even if you never met him.  Since that’s not terribly common, unfortunately, let’s focus on teachers for today (on the other hand, if your dad’s best friend would like to get his or her name on a building, please have them contact me).

The best teacher to write about your academic talents is going to be the one that admissions officers will find the most credible.  As a result, the perfect teacher profile is one who has taught you most recently (or who is teaching you now), who teaches a challenging academic subject (math, science, English, social science or foreign language), and in a class where you had to work really hard but also received great grades.  And the teacher should also like you.  That last is usually the challenging part.  It’s almost impossible to find exactly this combination, so make trade-offs (haven’t had since I was sophomore, but LOVES me, for instance).

There is an art to asking for recommendations, namely that you should ASK.  Teachers are incredibly busy people and these requests come in WAVES. You also need to ask the right way.  The correct question is, “Would you please write me a GOOD recommendation.”  The emphasis is important.  I’ve read a huge number of recommendations where the writer is seemingly out to get the student.  A bad sign is if the recommender replies, “Well, I can write you a TRUTHFUL recommendation.”  That is code for, “you did something a while back that really ticked me off and I’m going to feel compelled to share.”  I had one that went into tremendous detail about how the student toilet papered her house the previous year.  It was all I could remember in committee.

Next up, what your recommenders should write about, and who else can write them.  Be seeing you.

Why and how do universities offer scholarships before I apply?

I returned from the national admissions conference to a slew of questions about our scholarship standards, mostly from prospective applicants wanting to know RIGHT NOW (before applying, before we’ve started reviewing any applicants) whether or not they will receive a scholarship.  Given the financial climate, that may not be surprising, but I think it’s also related to changes in the information colleges and universities supply about our scholarships.

Many many years ago, when colleges were less cut throat, there was a universal agreement not to guarantee scholarships before students applied, as the awards sounded way too much like we were trying to buy your interest, and most colleges felt this was the wrong impression for schools to give.

But times have changed.

Now it’s common practice to get around this agreement by giving very specific numbers where students will get awards – even though colleges know these numbers (rank/gpa) are radically different by school or (SAT/ACT) mean very little from an academic standpoint (although a lot from a rankings standpoint).  Some go so far as to send award letters to students who haven’t even applied based on scores and self reported grades you supply when you fill out the SAT/ACT forms.


Mason still doesn’t print criteria because we still review scholarships candidates the way we review applicants, by reading their applications. Of course, higher GPA/SAT/rank all count significantly, but we also bear in mind the strength of their program and, to a much lesser degree, essays and recommendations. Personally, I think that’s how it should work.  I also hope that, although Mason costs a lot less than the other DC area schools, that students will explore all of the schools that might be a good match, and wait to see how scholarships and financial aid end up before making a decision.

But this may be unrealistic.  The truth is that many of you will decide very early in your senior year, some even in junior year, which schools will make your “apply” list.  Knowing that is the case, universities rush to influence you any way we can, and one of those ways is by dangling money in front of you.  This leads to a lot of pressure to raise tuition in order to offer more scholarships, a practice called “discounting” (we NEVER call it that when we talk to applicants, or parents, or legislators – but we talk about it ALL the time when we admissions officers get together at conferences).

After all this my colleagues spend a lot of time wringing their hands about how the whole process is more adversarial, and how students treat us like the stereotypes of used car salesmen. They seem genuinely surprised that such tactics increase the sense that this is more a business transaction than an academic decision.

In my dream world of admissions, you’re all savvy enough to see right through all of that hoopla, and continue to carefully consider which schools are the right match weighing the dollars as one factor. Also, we have flying cars.  mmmmmm.

Once we get into the admission/financial aid/scholarship award season (February and March) I’ll add some detail on how universities manipulate these awards, and what (if anything) you can do about it.  Be seeing you.